Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.
1) James Harden, Chris Paul combine for 60 to lead rout of Clippers in a potential first-round playoff preview. If you checked out our new “NBA playoff picture after” last night series this morning, you already know that if the playoffs started today the Los Angeles Clippers would be in Houston to take on the Rockets.
Houston sent a message Thursday that would be a short series.
James Harden led the way with 31 points, Chris Paul had 29, Clint Capela had 24 points and 15 rebounds, and the Rockets pulled away early and never looked back in a 135-103 win.
It was the kind of night where Chris Paul was even hitting 60 footers.
We all know the Rockets can score, but that was not the most impressive part of this win — their switching defense threw off the Clipper pick-and-roll heavy offense and smothered it.
The Clippers had an offensive net rating of 101 (points per 100 possessions) through the competitive portion of this game, that is 11.4 below their season average (stats via Cleaning the Glass). This is not something Houston just did in Los Angeles, in its last 10 games the Rockets have the second-best defense in the NBA. Houston is back to looking more like the Rockets of last season, the team that was up at halftime of Game 7 against the Warriors.
That was too much for Los Angeles.
The Clippers (who were without Patrick Beverley, for rest) are not going to be intimidated, they are not going to let one regular season game be a statement on a potential playoff matchup. This team plays too hard and is too well coached to just roll over.
However, when the Rockets play like this, they are contenders. And they are in a different class than the Clippers.
2) Orlando wins and is in, Miami loses and is out in the East. For now. The best race going in the NBA is for the final playoff spots in the East, and it got shaken up Wednesday night.
The Orlando Magic won, beating the Knicks 114-110, while Miami, Detroit, and Brooklyn all lost. That had the effect of moving Orlando past Miami into the final playoff spot in the East by half a game, tied with Brooklyn for the 7/8 seeds. Detroit is just half a game ahead of those two, Miami just half a game behind.
Nothing is set. That said Miami has the longest odds — fivethirtyeight.com has it at a 29 percent chance to make the playoffs — because it has the toughest schedule. The Heat play at the Timberwolves, then closes out with three playoff teams: at Toronto, Philadelphia, at Brooklyn. Orlando, by contrast, has surging Atlanta, is at Boston, then closes at Charlotte (just one playoff team in there). The more likely team to slide out of the playoffs and let Miami in is Brooklyn, which closes at Milwaukee, at Indiana, and then plays the Heat in what could be a huge game on the final night of the season.
The wild card in all this is rest — if when the Magic play the Celtics does Kyrie Irving or Al Horford get the night off for rest? When Brooklyn takes on Milwaukee will Giannis Antetokounmpo play? Those kinds of things could have huge swings in the race, and they are unpredictable.
It’s going to be a fun final week.
3) Gregg Popovich gets tossed 63 seconds into Spurs eventual loss to Nuggets. There was another potential first-round playoff matchup in the West Wednesday night, when the Denver Nuggets took on the San Antonio Spurs.
Gregg Popovich didn’t want to stick around and see it. Down 5-0 just 63 seconds into the game, Popovich called a timeout to argue some calls and got tossed for his trouble.
This isn’t a stat the NBA tracks, but it is believed to be the fastest ejection of a coach in NBA history (Flip Saunders did it in 66 seconds once).
Clearly, this bothered Popovich tremendously.
If this ends up being a first-round matchup, it should worry the Spurs. Nikola Jokic led Denver with 20 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists, the Nuggets had a season-high 41 assists, and the game was never in doubt as Denver won 113-85. Denver took all its frustrations from a tough night on Tuesday against Golden State out on San Antonio.